Lara Putnam is UCIS Research Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age (UNC Press, 2013), The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870–1960 (UNC Press, 2002), and more than two dozen articles and chapters exploring labor migration and its consequences, from the very intimate to the very public. She is currently Vice President/President-Elect of the Conference on Latin American History.
This essay explores the consequences for historians’ research of the twinned transnational and digitized turns. The accelerating digitization of primary and secondary sources and the rise of full-text web-based search to access information within them has transformed historians’ research practice, radically diminishing the role of place-specific prior expertise as a prerequisite to discovery. Indeed, we can now find information without knowing where to look. This has incited remarkably little reflection among mainstream historians, but the consequences are profound. What has become newly possible? How do the new digital affordances relate to the current boom in transnational topics and approaches? How do the reach, speed, and granularity of digitized search impact our ability to reconstruct the supranational past? This essay heralds the novel forms of knowledge-generation made possible by technological transformations. It also attempts an accounting of all the ancillary learning that international research in an analog world once required. What kinds of knowledge and insight did place-based research across borders instill? What are the intellectual and political consequences of leaving that behind?